Thursday, February 25, 2010

Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.

Thursday of the First Week in Lent
Reading I
Esther C:12, 14-16, 23-25

Queen Esther, seized with mortal anguish,
had recourse to the LORD.
She lay prostrate upon the ground,
together with her handmaids,
from morning until evening, and said:
“God of Abraham, God of Isaac,
and God of Jacob, blessed are you.
Help me, who am alone and have no help but you,
for I am taking my life in my hand.
As a child I used to hear
from the books of my forefathers
that you, O LORD, always free
those who are pleasing to you.
Now help me, who am alone
and have no one but you,
O LORD, my God.

“And now, come to help me, an orphan.
Put in my mouth persuasive words
in the presence of the lion
and turn his heart to hatred for our enemy,
so that he and those who are in league with him may perish.
Save us from the hand of our enemies;
turn our mourning into gladness
and our sorrows into wholeness.”
Esther, a Jewish woman and queen to King Assuerus (in Greek, Xerxes) of Persia, used her influence to avert a massacre of her people by the Persians. As she prepared to enter the presence of the king she made the prayer in today’s passage.

She prays to God to stretch his protecting hand over his people and to help her particularly in the task she has to do. She acknowledges her weakness and that, without God’s help, there is nothing she can do. But she, so to speak, reminds God of the promises he made long ago to his chosen people, chosen as a “lasting heritage”. It is a prayer of pure petition.

She knows that she and her people are totally in God’s hands. She does not threaten or try to manipulate God or bargain with him. She leaves the outcome entirely to him.

While we are encouraged by today’s Gospel to ask, to search, and to knock as a way of acknowledging our total dependence on God. At the same time, whatever we ask for, like Esther, we leave the outcome totally in his hands. As Jesus prayed in the Garden: ‘Father, not my will but yours be done.’
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Psalm 138
Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.

I will give thanks to you, O LORD, with all my heart,
for you have heard the words of my mouth;
in the presence of the angels I will sing your praise;
I will worship at your holy temple
and give thanks to your name.
Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.
Because of your kindness and your truth;
for you have made great above all things
your name and your promise.
When I called, you answered me;
you built up strength within me.
Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.
Your right hand saves me.
The LORD will complete what he has done for me;
your kindness, O LORD, endures forever;
forsake not the work of your hands.
Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.
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Matthew 7:7-12
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives;
and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks,
the door will be opened.
Which one of you would hand his son a stone
when he asked for a loaf of bread,
or a snake when he asked for a fish?
If you then, who are wicked,
know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father
give good things
to those who ask him.
“Do to others
whatever you would have them do to you.
This is the law and the prophets.”
Today’s readings are about prayer, specifically prayer of petition.
Today’s gospel sounds marvellous. “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find…” It seems all I have to do is pray for something and I will get what I ask for. And yet, we all know from experience that that is simply not true. I pray to win the lottery but don’t even get one of the minor prizes. I pray for the recovery of a person with cancer but the person dies. What is happening? Is Jesus telling lies? Are there some hidden conditions that we are not aware of?

I believe the answer lies in the second half of the passage. First, Jesus asks whether a father would offer a stone to his son asking for bread or whether a snake would be offered instead of a fish. “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him.”

In other words if we human beings, in spite of our shortcomings, care for the well-being of our children, then surely God, who is all good, will be infinitely more caring. The problem is not that God does not answer our prayers; the difficulty is that we tend to ask for the wrong things. We do not give a child a sharp knife to play with even though, when we refuse to do so, he throws a temper tantrum and gets angry with us. A good parent, of course, will try to give the child something else which satisfies its real need at the moment.

Jesus is saying that God will give “good things” to those who ask. In fact, as Jesus says elsewhere (Matthew 6:8), God already knows all our needs so it is not necessary to tell him. Then why pray at all? The purpose of prayer is for us to become more deeply aware of what our real needs are.

The things we ask for in prayer can be very revealing of our relationship with God and with others, it can be very revealing of our values and our wants (which are very different from our needs). The deepest prayer of petition will be to ask God to give us those things which are most for our long-term well-being, those things which will bring us closer to him and help us to interact in truth and love with those around us. It is a prayer to be the kind of people we ought to be. It is difficult to see that prayer not being answered.

It may be useful for us to look at the prayer of petition of Jesus in the garden and how it was answered. Paul in the second letter to the Corinthians also shares an experience of petitionary prayer which he made (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) and the surprising answer that he got.

The passage ends with the so-called Golden Rule - “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Note that it is expressed positively rather than negatively and that makes a considerable difference. The negative version can be observed by doing nothing at all; not so the positive version. Although it is a separate saying it can be linked with what Jesus says about petitionary prayer. If we expect God to be kind and generous to us, surely we are expected to be equally kind and generous to those who come asking our help.

Living Space
The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

Stone/bread - snake/fish

The first pair reminds me of Our Lord's testing by Satan in the desert. Stones can become bread, but God's plan is better: bread becomes Christ's body. Stones were thrown at criminals as a means of execution. Satan offers death, whereas God offers life.

The snake reminds me of temptation again, this time in the Garden of Eden. But it also reminds me of the snakes God sent to plague the Israelites after their constant complaining about the food (maybe they were hankering for a nice bit of fish!) These snakes killed some of the Israelites, but their ultimate end was the healing of the nation.

Sometimes God seems to give us a snake when we ask for a fish. It's hard to understand, but faith should reassure us.

If stone/bread can be seen as an opposition of death/life, what is snake/fish? I think the snake is probably temptation as the way to death. Perhaps the gift of a fish, which spends its life in water, was a sign of cleansing as a way to life.